Fiasco: HK TPK

So on Saturday we had a bitter-sweet online gaming experience, with a game starting fantastically promising but Internet technology deciding to leave us in a ditch.  We’re test-driving the “HK TPK” playset by Corey Reid, John Rogers, and Gareth-Michael Skarka for Jason Morningstar’s game Fiasco (Bully Pulpit Games).  The game is intended to tell tales of things gone wrong, largely in the style of the Cohen Brothers’ movies; the playset simulates Hong Kong action movies.

We had five players spanning different continents and time zones, plus my husband Edmund acting as facilitator.  We got our game set up and it started out as a convoluted generation-spanning tale of duty, regret, temptation and betrayal.  Then one of the connections decided that Saturday night’s all right for fighting, and gave us the boot.  We’ve rescheduled for next weekend, but in the mean time I thought I’d describe our movie’s beginning.

Tony Chin (picture of Chow Yun Fat in "The Replacement Killers")Maybe it all started in 1992, with the botched Kai Tak job.  An entire Boeing 747 cargo of North Korean rocket-propelled grenades, bought from China and destined for sale in Libya, intercepted by a consortium of Triads and Yakuza interests.  Tony got the the cargo, but shot a man he mistook for a cop.  Alas, it was really his contact.  In the scramble that followed, he stashed the cargo — but someone else found it and moved it.  He needs to find it again to free himself from his obligation to the fearsome Madame Wu. Continue reading “Fiasco: HK TPK”

Citrus Cake of Awesomeness

Citrus cake

We had a party for my friend Dorene’s birthday and I made a a citrus cake that was very popular.  Every time I make this cake, people rave about it.  The original recipe is Apollina’s “Stella Cake” (and as she comments, it looks even more stunning if you can find blood oranges to decorate it.)

I use her recipe pretty much unmodified for the cake batter and the filling, with the added detail that I use fresh-picked Meyer lemons since we have a tree in the backyard.  Meyer lemons, if you don’t know them, are citrus fruit native to China thought to be a cross between a true lemon and either a mandarin or common orange.  They have a gentle, not quite sweet but less biting flavour, extremely fragrant.  Plus, the zest of home-grown and freshly picked fruit is lighter and fluffier than that of store-bought fruit picked green for shipping and ripened artificially in containers.

The icing, however, didn’t work for me (if only because the quantities listed there yield enough icing for two cakes!) so I’ve replaced it with a “rich butter icing” I had from my mom’s staple recipes.  (Recipe after the cut.)  Continue reading “Citrus Cake of Awesomeness”

Finding free SF/F online

Art by Julie Dillon, TOR BooksI’m trying to compile a list of free resources for online science fiction & fantasy.  Comments and suggestions are welcomed!

Free Science Fiction Classics on the Web: Huxley, Orwell, Asimov, Gaiman & Beyond on Open Culture.

Creative Commons Science-Fiction on offers many ebooks published under Creative Commons license, as pioneered by Cory Doctorow.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction provides lots of interesting information and links. is a vast repository of books, articles, reviews, and videos in the public domain, searchable by author. It also provides links to help find works for purchase or in libraries.

LibriVox makes audiobooks available in the public domain.

Baen Books Free Library, providing samples of participating Baen authors’ works free, including complete books.

TOR Books offer free stories, art, and sample chapters from their upcoming books.

Edit: More suggestions received:

International Speculative Fiction, an online magazine that started last summer.

Lightspeed Magazine, another online science fiction and fantasy magazine.

Clarkesworld, a Hugo Award-winning and World Fantasy Award-nominated science fiction and fantasy magazine.

Escape Pod, a science fiction podcast magazine.

Pseudopod, short horror in audio form.

Podcastle, an audio fantasy magazine.

Daily SF, original science fiction and fantasy every weekday.

Strange Horizons, a free weekly online magazine devoted to publishing high-quality speculative fiction, poetry, art, and related nonfiction.

Starship Sofa, a Hugo-Award-winning science fiction podcast from the UK.

Edit 2:

For completeness, I guess I should list Project Gutenberg, the granddaddy of them all; and eBooks@Adelaide.

Edit 3:

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA); Smashwords’ Science Fiction section and Fantasy section.

Edit 4:

Worlds Without End is a science fiction, fantasy and horror and it includes a free books section.

Art by Julie Dillon, TOR Books.  No copyright challenge intended.

Pop Culture Gilead?

Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale"So I joined a follow-up reading group on Goodreads which participants in my recent SF/F class created in order to continue discussing fantasy and science fiction books of note in-depth.  The plan is to have one book a month to read and discuss, alternating between works of science fiction and fantasy.  We are starting with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for April.

Margaret Atwood is well-known for refusing the label “science fiction” for her work.  In fact, three decades later I still have trouble thinking of her work as a science fiction; I grew up looking at what my parents — both avid readers — were reading and my mom had all the early French translations of Atwood’s works.  My mom has never liked science fiction, ergo, Margaret Atwood didn’t write science fiction!

You can view the book online on  It had the distinction of making No. 37 on the American Library Association (ALA)’s list of 100 most challenged books of the 1990-1999 decade, but dropped to No. 88 in 2000-2009, woo-hoo!

You can read many of Atwood’s works: books, short stories, essays, articles, interviews, as well as reviews or her books, etc. on

The discussion of the book’s motifs on TV Tropes is worth browsing.  I think it’s fair to say that as a place to live in, the Republic of Gilead sits as far as it can from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland.

There is a 1990 movie starring Natasha Richardson as Offred, Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy, and Robert Duvall as The Commander; the link has the entire movie with original English audio but German subtitles on YouTube.

A dramatic adaptation of the novel for radio was produced for BBC Radio 4 by John Dryden in 2000.  Listen online to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of 3.

"The Handmaid's Tale" opera productionThere is even an opera by Danish composer Poul Ruders; you can sample and buy tracks here.  From what I can see, the visuals in the English National Opera’s production were very dramatic even if the music got lukewarm reviews from critics.

Someone used to make a sort of visual summary of the book using images from edition covers, stills from the 1990 movie, and images of the opera productions.

I think it’s fair to say that Atwood’s book had far-reaching influence, even in unabashedly entertainment-oriented science fiction.  Gilead is a dead ringer for several dystopias in later books, like David Drake’s Protectorate of Grayson (the redeemable version of Gilead) and Masada (the hard-core version) in his Honor Harrington series; and Elizabeth Moon’s New Texas (known in our household as “the Space Stupids”) in her Familias Regnant universe.

An interesting perspective from a self-described Mennonite feminist, The Femonite: The Handmaid’s Tale – Atwood and Feminism Then and Now.

Once again, I’m going to mention the game Shock: Social Science Fiction (Glyphpress), which is a fiction game of culture and future shock. Based on the works of masters of speculative fiction, the game pushes the players to make stories that matter to them — stories about politics, philosophy, love, and death.  It is a very good way to re-create a story in the style of Atwood’s various thought experiments.

Top illustration by Anna and Elena Balbusso, winners of a Gold Award from The American Society of Illustrators, for the Culture Label deluxe edition.  No copyright challenge intended.

Photo of English National Opera’s production of the opera version obtained from The Guardian UK.  No copyright challenge intended.

Some brothers are more equal than others

Little Brother cover XFor the tenth and final week of my online class, Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, the reading assignment was Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.

It was the only book in this class which had officially been published in the category “Young Adults”, or YA (like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, if you are not familiar with the label.)  However, most of the SF/F mega-genre has at time considered to be merely for youthful and immature readers…

Little Brother reads as if Alan Moore had written a sequel to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series for the universe of V for Vendetta, and published it in Linux Magazine.  It makes a lot of references, both open and oblique, to George Orwell’s 1984; the defence against Big Brother, it suggests, is a lot of Little Brothers and Sisters.

Anyhow, here is the last of my 300-word essays for this class.  Continue reading “Some brothers are more equal than others”

Life-long Learning

My science fiction and fantasy class ends this week.  Even though I had accumulated the grades to earn the certificate three weeks ago, I did all ten weeks of readings, essays, and peer reviews because, after all, learning itself is more real than certificates.  I’ve registered for a number of additional online classes throughout the year, since there are so many interesting and free choices.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been sprouting everywhere in the past year or so, but the logistics and economics of getting them to a point where they can start bringing in revenue to pay for themselves are problematic.  Open Culture had an interesting article on the topic a few days ago, The Big Problem for MOOCs Visualized.  In the mean time, I’m enjoying as many free classes as I can; who knows how long the experiment will last.  Anyone want to join me on any of these?

Smokestacks_3958I’m half-way through Property and Liability: An Introduction to Law and Economics, given by Dr. Richard Adelstein of Wesleyan University. It doesn’t make for great blog posts because the homework consists of online quizzes, and I’m too new at the topic to feel brash enough to ad-lib on the lectures.  However, the course is excellent and very well presented; I highly recommend it and will be looking out for more opportunities to hear Dr. Adelstein speak.

9_becoming_human_BIn a couple of weeks, the anthropology class Becoming Human begins, with Dr. Greg Downey of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.  It sounds fascinating and only lasts four weeks, with assignments consisting once again of online quizzes.

immigration-nologo-2A week later starts a class I registered for in order to get an update on official policies, Citizenship and U.S. Immigration.  The course is hosted by Dr. Polly J. Price of Emory University and lasts five weeks; I expect it’s going to be another relying on online quizzes.  I’m particularly interested in learning about recent, planned, and hoped-for immigration reform.

art10_logoA class I’m greatly looking forward to, yet dread a little, starts in late May: Introduction to Art: Concepts & Techniques, with Professor Anna Divinsky of PennState.  This one actually requires that we create art pieces and upload scans or photos to the class Website, to be critiqued and discussed; media used will include graphite pencils, charcoal, pastels, ink, watercolour, acrylic paint, and collage.  So for seven weeks, this will probably be the activity I’m most interested in and talk about all the time.

Flag-raising-on-Iwo-JimaIn June starts another class I’m eagerly awaiting, The Camera Never Lies with Dr. Emmett Sullivan of the University of London International Programmes.  This six-weeks course is an introduction to use of photographs as historical evidence in the twentieth century, issues of authenticity and manipulation, and the place of film and historical adoptions as public history.

fury_millsFinally, in October I’ll be taking Live!: A History of Art for Artists, Animators and Gamers with Dr. Jeannene Przyblyski of the California Institute of the Arts: “Explore art history from the artist’s perspective. Learn how contemporary artists, animators and gamers work from the art of the past as part of their creative process, while building your own skills in visual analysis and creative and critical thinking.”  Assessment will be a combination of peer-reviewed sketchbook exercises and online quizzes.

My Essay on “The Left Hand of Darkness”: Rationed Life

Momo and tsampa, by vendroitThe Week 9 reading assignment for my online class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World was Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

This is the book I would love to love.  I feel it reflects poorly on me that it leaves me… cold (ha-ha.) As in most travelogues, the narrator is supposed to stand in for the reader. But it’s hard to read this 1969 book in 2013 and relate to the mentality that is expected to be shared by the reader about differences between genders; I felt more at home with Gilman in  this respect.

I wanted to love this book, I really did.  I sympathize with the theme, I sympathize with the people of all genders who were so relieved to finally see themselves in a book.  But unfortunately, I was never very interested in any of the characters on an emotional level.

More than anything, I failed to identify at all with the mentality that was assigned to the oh-so-advanced Ekumen, where gender issues should really have been no big thing at all.  I get that the narrator is supposed to stand in for an American reader in 1969, but thankfully, this mentality now seems incredibly old-fashioned, like watching Ensign Janice Rand in her short skirt bring memos for Captain Kirk to sign.

Here is my 300-word essay.  Continue reading “My Essay on “The Left Hand of Darkness”: Rationed Life”

Pop Culture Doctorow

by Richard T Wilkinson, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

To go with my online class Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, I started a series of posts listing companion materials in pop culture, preferably ones that are a little forgotten, have not received the attention I think they deserve, or take an unusual angle.  All the better if they are available online, double-plus for free.

These are the ones I propose to accompany this week’s reading, Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.  But who am I kidding — Doctorow IS pop culture incarnate!  The most recent and youngest author on our reading list, he has fully embraced the age of the Internet.

  • You probably already know him, even if you don’t know that you know: he is the co-editor of that shrine of Web pop culture, Boing Boing and a contributing author to Wired magazine.
  • He is a champion of intellectual rights reform and open content; he offers a good deal of free content on his own Website,, including of course the class reading, his novel Little Brother. He often publishes his work under Creative Commons license.
  • Cory the balloonist (xkcd)He is an occasional topic and balloonist character on the lovably nerdy Webcomic (for example here, here, here, here, here and here).
  • The Instructables section that accompanies Little Brother, one of the sources for the Occupy Movement’s members.
  • The images from the deluxe edition of Little Brother are available from artist Richard T. Wilkinson’s Flickr site.
  • Video playlist: a series of clips relating to the book on YouTube, including previews from the play in 2012, interviews and readings with Doctorow, book reviews, etc.
  • Works by Cory Doctorow from the database (links to online content.)

Cory Doctorow

Little Brother cover by Richard T. WilkinsonCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

Cartoon by Randall Munroe on — Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License 

Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing SquidCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.